What is Yule? Ancient Pagan Traditions and 12 Ways to Celebrate
We snuggle up by the fire with a book and a hot beverage in-hand. Cookies bake in the oven and wrapped gifts aplenty are nestled under the Yule tree. The nights have been long, and the days short but we don’t mind the extra rest and relaxation. We prepare for the pagan Winter sabbat called Yule, a time of laughter, joy and quality time with our loved ones (well, mostly…LOL). Here we explore the answer to the question What is Yule and offer 12 ways to celebrate the Yule sabbat in modern times.
What is Yule? Meaning and Ancient Germanic Origins
I’ve always been a Yule witch through and through. I know Samhain is a favorite among most witches, but Yule? That’s my time. I truly think it’s the Germanic and Norse roots ingrained in me. But anyone can celebrate Yule. The Winter Solstice occurs annually around December 21st in the Northern Hemisphere and around June 21st in the Southern Hemisphere. This is a day when the daylight is diminished and it’s the longest night of the year. Nearly every ancient culture acknowledged or celebrated the Winter Solstice in some aspect. Today, many of our Christmas customs descend from much older pagan traditions of the Germanic, Greek, Roman and Celtic people. But, depending on where you are in the world, you likely have your own set of traditions and beliefs of the Yuletide season.
Yule or Jol is an ancient Germanic holiday season. The name Jol is believed to come from a name for Odin himself – JÓLFAÐR, which translates to Yule Father. Which came first, Yule or the Yule Father? We’ll let you decide. Some say Yule lasted for 12 days, from the Winter Solstice forward, while others say the festivities lasted an entire two months. From December through January, if we’re looking at a modern calendar. Other names for Yule include Jól, Jólablót, Jul, Yule time, and Yuletide.
A Liminal and Sacred Time: The Wild Hunt, Ancestors and Elves
Yule is a time of great symbolism and power. It reminds us that after a season of long, cold nights and short days, the sun’s return is imminent. Our ancient Germanic ancestors also believed that Yule was a liminal time – a time when the faeries, spirits and gods could walk among us. And visit us. It wasn’t a time to take things lightly, as the very threads of fate called wyrd could be bound or re-woven at Yuletide. Sacrifices were offered to the old gods, typically a boar or pig. The gods honored at Yule included Odin, Thor, Freyr, Frigg, and Freya.
Beware the Wild Hunt. Or so people said for many centuries. After the church rose to power, it became a procession of devils, witches, and the dead. But before that, the Wild Hunt was a procession of gods led by Odin, Freya, and Berchta that traveled through the Wintry night skies. Some believe they gathered recent lost souls, while others believed it was simply Odin passing through on one of his travels to Midgard.
Winter Solstice, or Yule, wasn’t just a one day celebration. More than likely, feasting, partying, and processions occurred throughout the Winter season. A few other sacred Winter holidays that occur during Yuletime are Modraniht (Mothers’ Night) and Álfablót (Elven Sacrifice). Mothers’ Night is an Anglo-Saxon Heathen holiday in which pagans honor their tribal goddesses, as well as the Disir (ancestral mothers and matriarchs). During Álfablót, the pagan people in Sweden provided ritual offerings to the elves. When we say elves, we’re not talking about Keebler. These elves were more god-like than that.
The Twelve Nights of Christmas were actually a Christian continuation of the Twelve Days of Yuletide. Interestingly, in older times, the people believed the twelve days of Yuletide were when they were the most vulnerable to spirits. Yule was to the Germanic and Norse peoples what Samhain was to the Celts. Ancestors were honored and still are, and children born during the Twelve Days of Yuletide were considered particularly gifted or powerful.
On Yule, we honor the Goddess, Mother Earth, for giving birth to the Sun once more. Just as she draws the light within her womb during the darkest time of the year, so does she create the light at the Winter Solstice.Laurie Cabot, Celebrate the Earth
Yule’s Pagan Gods, Goddesses and Spirits
Scholars have connected the original celebration of Yule to the Wild Hunt, Demeter as the Dark Mother in Winter, the Winter Goddesses, the celebration of Dionysus and Brumalia, Baldur and his association with the mistletoe, the god Odin, and the Pagan Anglo-Saxon Mōdraniht. But if you think about it, nearly all cultures and faiths have held some sort of winter solstice celebration or festival. The theme of endless birth, life, death, and rebirth, is ubiquitous no matter the culture or faith. Whatever path you follow, there’s a big chance that one of your tradition’s superstitions, rituals, gods or goddesses has a Yule connection.
In addition to the usual Yule suspects, there are many Wintry spirits abroad during Yuletide. Ever heard of Krampus, the Christmas Devil? Krampus is a mythical figure particularly popular in the Bavarian region of Germany, whose popularity is starting to spread across the globe. But his origins are likely ancient and may link him to Loki, the Norse trickster god, and Hel the guardian of the Underworld in Norse mythology. As mentioned before, elves are active at this time of year, specifically in the form of the Tomte and the Nisse. These elves were once thought of as guardians of the home and hearth. They are the predecessors of Santa’s elves in the North Pole.
In Italy, a witch flies through the air on Epiphany Eve sending gifts down the chimneys to deserving children’s stockings and boots. Her name is La Befana, and she’s also a diminished continuation of an ancient goddess of fortune named Strenia. She reminds us of the Old Woman of Christmas in Scotland, the Cailleach Nallig. Both Christmas figures are carved into pieces of wood then burned to bring wellbeing in the New Year.
Yule Magical Correspondences
|Anise||Clear quartz||Fruit cake||Hound||Holda|
Ways to Celebrate Yule Today: 12 Traditions for Modern Pagans
1. Family and the Yule Log
As a modern pagan or witch, celebrate Yule by joining festivals, feasting, singing, dancing, and spending time with loved ones. The most important and the funnest of all is lighting the Yule log. Hold a ceremony where you and your family can light it together. Nothing says warm and cozy, and keeping evil spirits at bay quite like bonfires with your nearest and dearest.
2. Self Reflection on Winter Solstice
The winter solstice is a great time for self reflection. There’s no better time to do this than during the darkest and longest night of the year. Wrestling with an issue? Realizations and epiphanies come by easier in the quiet stillness if the season. But it doesn’t have to be the only thing you do this winter solstice. In fact, this is the best time for you to do your Yule rituals!
3. Yule Prayers
One of the easiest thing you can do is offer up a Yule prayer. You can start with offering a prayer to the Earth. A prayer to notice that even though everything seems still or lifeless, nothing is truly dead. Animals are in hibernation and the plants will be a symbol of rebirth once more. Nothing stays dormant forever, even in the areas of your life where you think it is. Offering this prayer will make you realize that as the days go by, the cycle turns, and the areas of your life that seem stagnant will no longer be, as evident of Spring. It will come and you will bloom along with it.
4. Sunrise, Sunset, and Snow Prayers
You could also offer a Yule Sunrise prayer, welcoming the Sun when it first rises on the 21st. Feel like venerating all the astronomical occurrences during this season? Offer up a Sunrise prayer as well as a Sunset prayer, and a Snow prayer. If you want to honor your gods as well, there are Yule prayers you can offer to the Winter Goddess, the Sun Gods, and the Old Gods. You could search the prayers that resonate with you or you could craft your own. Combine both if you please.
5. Twelve Days of Yule Devotionals
Tired of praying? You could also try a different devotional each day for 12 days or until Yule celebrations end. This is as easy as lighting a candle once a day every day for the full 12 days of Yuletide. And each day can be dedicated to a specific god, goddess, ancestor, faery, spirit, etc.
6. Cleansing Ritual
A good cleansing ritual is welcomed to, in fact, I strongly suggest! Before decorating your home with your Yuletide decorations, clean your space of both physical dirt and vibrational dirt. Use your broom or besom to sweep away all the negativity as both a symbolical act and to collect the literal dust and dirt into a bin.
7. Yule Altar and Winter Solstice Tree
Don’t forget to set up your Yule altar and holiday tree. And as most pagans do use a tree, don’t forget to bless it, both before cutting it and right before throwing it away after the season is over. Personally this is my most favorite altar transformation. It’s the cheeriest of all the Sabbaths. Use whatever items that call to you the most but include some of the traditional Yule herbs, plants, and crystals.
Wassailing is an ancient Anglo-Saxon tradition of singing blessings for people in a household or to the trees in an orchard. There’s also an alcoholic spiced cider called wassail that’s traditionally drank and shared at Yuletide. Consider going caroling in honor of this old tradition and making your own batch of wassail as a way to celebrate Yule.
9. Ancestral and Divine Feasting
As sacrifices to the gods was customary on Yule, we should carry on this tradition by eating a Christmas ham or pork roast. The pork is in place of the wild boar sacrificed to the gods. Set aside a plate for the gods and the ancestors. Or have two feasts: one for the gods and one for the ancestors. Who doesn’t love eating over the holidays anyway? Here’s our favorite Yule recipes.
10. Mothers’ Night (Modraniht)
Mothers’ Night (also called Modraniht) is the night we celebrate our ancestors’ goddesses and the Disir. The Disir are spirits and deities that protect our bloodlines, our families. Many are likely our personal matriarchal ancestors from the past. They are powerful spirits though and require offerings of gratitude on Modraniht. Celebrate your Disir and goddesses on the Winter Solstice or the night before the Winter Solstice. Last year, I made a large simmer pot as an offering to my Disir in which my family wrote things they were thankful for on bay leaves. Then dropped the bay leaves into the simmer pot. Start your own Modraniht tradition for Yule.
11. Yule Goat (Bock)
The Yule Goat or Yule Bock is a Scandinavian Christmas tradition. It’s basically a decorative goat made out of straw or wood. Then hung on the Yule tree or placed elsewhere around the home. The goat itself is one of two things: either a representation of Thor’s sacred animals OR a nod to the calendar moving into the sign Capricorn. Either way, the yule goat brings prosperity and luck in the coming year.
12. Ghost Stories at Yule
We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again…Yuletide is a season of ghosts, ghouls and gods. So what better tradition to carry on than telling ghost stories near a roaring fire? This used to be a well-known and beloved Christmas custom (think of the ghosts in A Christmas Carol) that has all but fizzled out. Let’s bring it back.
Goodbye Long Nights…
Incorporate new traditions or old ones that resonate with you into your Yule rituals. You could do this as a solitary practitioner or together with your loved ones. Say goodbye to the old and welcome in the new. Celebrate the New Year with ancient and modern traditions. Celebrate as the Sun returns to the Earth and life blossoms once more.
By Kristine Ibañez Lua